Historic Battles Series: Battle of Dyrrhachium (48 BCE)

Historic Battles Series: Battle of Dyrrhachium (48 BC)

The Battle of Dyrrachium on 10 July 48 BCE was a fight during Caesar’s Civil War near the Dyrrachium town (in what is now Albania). It was a battle between Julius Caesar and an army led by Gnaeus Pompey, who had the backing of the Roman Senate majority.

Civil War

By the tip of Julius Caesar’s first year as consul, he had amassed an extensive list of lawsuits. Roman law granted government officials protection from prosecution but only during their course of office. Once he became a future private citizen, Caesar understood he would be helpless.

One day, the Senate commanded him to resign command of his troops. Caesar responded that he would agree to leave his military command only if Pompey followed suit. Shocked by Caesar’s response, the Senate commanded he immediately disband his army or be declared an enemy of the state. In 50 BCE, at his Proconsular term’s expiry, the Senate ultimately forbade Caesar’s standing for future election in absentia for a second consulship, and because of this, Julius Caesar thought he would be executed and rendered politically marginalized if he entered Rome without his army or consular immunity Caesar answered by marching on Rome, and he forced the unprepared Pompey and his allies to run away to Greece, starting the Roman Civil War.

Battle of Dyrrhachium

Pompey scaled a frontal attack of six legions against Caesar’s line where it joined the ocean and where the IX legion was posted. Pompey also sent some light infantry and auxiliaries to attack by sea. Heavily outnumbering the Caesarian troops and hitting them from the rear and the front, the Pompeian forces broke through the vulnerable fortifications, causing the Ninth to immediately pull back from the invasion with heavy losses.

Caesar quickly strengthened the breach with 4,000 men. Twelve cohorts under the infamous Mark Antony then counterattacked, re-securing part of the garrison and forcing Pompey’s disordered forces back. Although Caesar’s counterattack was originally successful, Pompey’s forces were too many.

During the morning, Pompey enjoyed his newly-won position by establishing a camp south of the Caesarian walls and put eight of his legions there. He then sent the ninth to occupy a small base between the walls that Caesar had fled and expanded the defenses. Caesar replied by sending over 30 cohorts to attack this position. Although the attack was first successful, the Caesarian troops were outnumbered 2:1, and Pompey’s army fought hard. Pompey later sent a large force of infantry and 4,000 cavalries to outflank Caesar’s right-wing.

Caesar initially ordered his troops on the right to stand firm but then observed the risk of being outflanked. He ordered a withdrawal which soon became a disordered and panicked rout. The counterattack on Pompey’s camp dissolved completely. At first, Julius Caesar personally tried to stem the escape, but the troops did not stop until they reached their own camps. Pompey abstained from pursuing Caesar’s routed forces, and this allowed them to regroup. Caesar gives his losses at about 1,000; Pompey’s were probably less.

After the terrible failure of the counterattack and considering the losses incurred, Julius Caesar resolved to give up trying to besiege Pompey and transform the campaign’s entire strategy.

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